Spanish PM Pulls a Lincoln on Catalan Secession

Catalans voted for independence, and Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy is having none of it.

In the wake of Catalonia’s referendum on independence, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy continued to argue, as he had in the weeks leading up to the vote, that any attempt by Catalans to become an independent state violates "the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards."

Americans watching with interest could hardly have missed the similarity to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural speech, in which he declared, “It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.”

The difference is Lincoln was doing just what he said he was doing, “asserting.” His novel theory had no basis in the words of the U.S. Constitution itself and contradicted both the Declaration of Independence and the ratification statements made by three states, including Virginia, who all reserved the right to secede from the union as a condition of ratification.

The Catalonia Conundrum

Prime Minister Rajoy’s statement, on the other hand, was not based in theory. He was quoting directly Article 2 of the Spanish Constitution, which contains the provision Lincoln had to invent. But Rajoy wasn’t quoting the whole Article, which reads,

The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible country of all Spaniards; it recognises and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed, and the solidarity amongst them all.

Jumbled together in that one paragraph are the same conflicting pressures which exploded into civil war in 19th century America and continue to smolder under the surface today. On one hand is the recognition that diverse cultures within the union have a natural right to govern themselves as they see fit, without having their political decisions overridden by politicians in a distant capitol who don’t share their values, have no local stake in the community and, in Catalonia’s case, don’t even speak the same language.

But at the same time, the Spanish Constitution expressly states what Lincoln argued was implied: whether that natural right is respected or not, secession won’t be tolerated. Upon ratifying their respective constitutions, it is as if the governments the Americans and Spaniards created became the character Sonny in A Bronx Tale, who said just after locking the door of his tavern on the troublemaking bikers, “Now, youz can’t leave.”

A Catalan vote on independence in which most eligible voters participated would likely be very close. It may even fail. There is also the related question, publicly debated by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine during the French Revolution, of whether any one generation can bind future ones into a political arrangement in perpetuity. Burke, widely recognized as the father of British-American conservatism, said it could. Rejecting the idea that governments are formed to secure natural rights, Burke took the conservative position that only long-standing institutions can protect Man from his own barbarous nature.

Paine took the position established in the Declaration of Independence that the people have a right to alter or abolish their governments when they failed to secure or became “destructive” of their natural rights. Interestingly, this question is even more at the center of the Catalonia controversy than it was during the French Revolution or American Civil War.

Unlike the French peasants or Confederate states, Catalans themselves are divided on whether they want independence from Spain. Yes, the Confederate states had many of the same differences with Washington Catalonia has with Madrid: They were net taxpayers, meaning they paid more in taxes to the general government than they collected in benefits. They were culturally different, not quite so much linguistically, but certainly so in every other way. And they had a history of self-governance, even while part of the British Empire, that by the time of the Civil War was hundreds of years old.

The chief difference between the two conflicts is the absence of a single, defining issue around which the forces for secession can rally. Sadly, that issue for the Confederacy was slavery, although all the other grievances were part of the fuel which burst into flame. For Catalonia, there are only those longstanding grievances, which continue to smolder. And so, unlike the Confederate states’ secession conventions, a Catalan vote on independence in which most eligible voters participated would likely be very close. It may even fail.

But even if all eligible voters in Catalonia participated in a referendum and those opposing independence won a narrow electoral victory, would that really resolve anything? What about those over two million Catalans, roughly half the voting population, who had effectively withdrawn their consent to be governed by Madrid?

Democracy in the Digital Age

The Industrial Age was an age of consolidation, politically and economically. It mobilized people into factories to produce the economies of scale that raised the living standards of most of society. Similarly, the whole world consolidated into nation-states that brought together very large interest groups, who voted together largely in their perceived economic self-interest. If you were a factory worker in a union town, you voted with the union. If you were a farmer or a financier, you voted accordingly.

It was an age that naturally lent itself to democracy.

Last weekend’s events in Spain should remind us that governments have only one response to noncompliance with their rule: force. The Digital Age is leading in precisely the opposite direction. Economically and politically, it is a decentralizing force. Instead of driving to a big box retailer to purchase an item of clothing, consumers can now order them from Amazon on their phones, while sitting on their patios.

Similarly, the politics of one’s geographic region are beginning to lose their dominance over political sensibilities. While geography still matters more than anything else, there is an undeniable trend towards identifying politically with those in one’s social media networks, rather than merely in one’s city or state. It doesn’t take much imagination to look ahead a few decades and wonder whether geography will matter at all in a completely digital world, where even large-scale manufacturing has given way to the decentralizing influence of 3D printers or some new technology.

In such a brave new world, national or regional majorities based on geographical boundaries will seem far less legitimate to more autonomous individuals plugged into global networks, perhaps no longer needing even to travel to an office or factory to work. And resentment will continue to grow exponentially as geographically-based governments override what those individuals perceive as their own natural rights to liberty and to keep the fruits of their labor, instead of having them redistributed at the whim of politicians whose rule is based on regional majorities who may seem as alien to those people of the future as Washington seems to Iowans today.

As exciting as individual secession sounds in theory, last weekend’s events in Spain should remind us that governments have only one response to noncompliance with their rule: force. And just as in 19th century America, there is still plenty of support for governments to stamp out secession movements with violence. One can only hope the technological advances of the next several decades are accompanied by at least some small advances in wisdom.